No regrets, says ex-Catalan minister on referendum anniversary

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Oriol Junqueras (4L), who was part of a failed secession attempt in Spanish Catalonia, has no regrets – Copyright AFP/File EVARISTO SA

Rosa SULLEIRO

Five years after the failed secession campaign in Catalonia that landed him in prison, Oriol Junqueras remains convinced that challenging Spain with a banned referendum on independence was the right decision.

But the region’s former deputy leader says the separatist camp needs to rally more support if its dream of an independent Catalan state is ever to become a reality.

“We did what we had to do,” the professor-turned-politician said in an interview with AFP when asked about the failed secession campaign that culminated in October 2017.

“I am deeply proud of everything we have done, of our commitment, of having been able to call, organize and hold a self-determination referendum,” added the 53-year-old.

Although banned by the Spanish courts, the October 1, 2017 referendum organized by the separatist government of Catalonia went ahead but descended into chaos when the police intervened to arrest it, triggering clashes marred by violence.

Based on the results of this vote – which have never been independently corroborated – the Catalan parliament declared independence on 27 October.

The Spanish authorities responded by dismissing the Catalan government and pressing charges against the region’s leaders who fled abroad or were imprisoned like Junqueras.

– Falling support –

Today, the separatist movement is deeply divided on the way forward and the pro-independence coalition ruling Catalonia is on the verge of collapse.

While Junqueras’ ERC party favors dialogue with Madrid, its junior coalition partners, former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont’s JxC has taken a more confrontational approach.

Despite passions over independence, the region itself also remains divided, with just 41% in favor of separation while 52% want to stay in Spain, according to the latest survey.

In an October 2017 poll, support for independence in Spain’s wealthy northeast region stood at 49%.

“What we need to do today is be democratically stronger” in the face of the “repressive” Spanish state, said Junqueras, a lifelong pro-independence supporter and father of two who also served as minister of Economy of Catalonia.

The separatist camp’s “main mistake” in 2017 was not “talking more to people, convincing more people” to support the cause, he added.

Last year, the government of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez pardoned Junqueras and eight other Catalan separatist leaders who were serving long prison terms for their role in the ill-fated independence bid.

Junqueras was sentenced in 2019 to 13 years behind bars, the longest sentence among the nine pardoned leaders. He spent more than three years in prison before being pardoned.

As Catalonia’s former vice-president, Junqueras was found guilty of sedition and embezzlement of public funds after the unauthorized 2017 referendum that led to Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.

– ‘Made us stronger’ –

Puigdemont, who was head of Catalonia’s government at the time of the referendum, escaped arrest by fleeing to Belgium after Catalonia’s short-lived declaration of independence.

“I was convinced that my obligation was to be as close as possible to my citizens, at the same time I fully understand that other people have opted for exile,” Junqueras said.

“The fact that we have been in prison only makes us stronger in every way,” he added.

“It has also opened many doors in the international community that were harder to open before, so in that sense the time spent in prison has also been a very worthwhile investment.”

He cited as an example an August finding by the UN Human Rights Committee which found that Spain had violated the political rights of Catalan politicians, including Junqueras.

The committee found that Spain violated their rights when they were suspended from duty before being sentenced.

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